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Take away two of an NBA team’s best players and you’ll learn a lot about the other guys.
Take away two of their best players and several other rotation players, and suddenly things get interesting in a hurry.
So far for the Phoenix Suns, the results have been somewhat mixed ever since Devin Booker and then Deandre Ayton went down — as one might expect. When Booker left midway through the Suns’ first entanglement with the Golden State Warriors with a hamstring injury, Ayton dominated on both ends, Chris Paul took over in the clutch and guys like Jae Crowder and Landry Shamet knocked down timely 3s to push them past their biggest competition for the NBA’s top spot so far.
Phoenix then outclassed the Detroit Pistons with a sheer talent advantage, lost the Warriors rematch on the second night of a back-to-back on the road, won ugly against the San Antonio Spurs and then submitted their most impressive win of the season on two days of rest, demolishing the Boston Celtics in a nationally-televised game they played without Booker or DA.
It’s probably the reason Monday’s fall back down to earth against the LA Clippers felt so disorienting.
“We just couldn’t knock down a shot and we were undermanned,” Monty Williams said afterward. “But we still had a chance, and that’s what I was encouraged by the fight of our guys tonight. Having so many guys out, it kind of caught up with us tonight, but we battled. We just couldn’t make a shot for segments of the game.”
The Suns shot 37.5 percent from the field and went 7-for-29 (24.1 percent) from 3-point range. Even for a team playing without two of its stars, there was simply a lack of offensive cohesion.
“Kinda just one of those nights, just struggling to find that rhythm,” Cam Johnson explained. “There’s tons of reasons for that to happen, but we had some moments where it definitely picked up, so obviously we’re capable of it. Just gotta do it more often throughout the game.”
It’d be easy to chalk that ugly loss up to not having Booker and Ayton, but that’s the hurdle currently facing the Suns: doing it consistently without them, especially as Book’s hamstring injury lingers and Ayton has now missed the last two games with a non-COVID illness.
Oh, and Abdel Nader is still out with “right knee injury management,” which has held him out for the last 11 games. And Frank Kaminsky’s stress reaction in his right knee that’s sidelined him for the last 13 games. Also Jalen Smith, who missed the Clippers game with a non-COVID illness. And who can forget Dario Saric, who tore his ACL in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and will probably be out all season?
It’s only December, but the Suns’ rotation is already nearing a breaking point in terms of healthy bodies.
“He’s talking like we’ve got a bunch of guys on layaway,” Williams joked when asked about Phoenix’s approach with so many injuries. “We don’t have anybody else. We’re down a lot of players, but I think when you have situations like this, you just gotta figure it out and try to give your team a competitive advantage.”
It’s vintage Monty Williams to look at a rotation missing two key starters, three other rotation players and one “break in case of emergency” guy…and view it as just another challenge, almost like a silver lining to all the bodies piling up on the bench.
It’s also the type of thing that could pay dividends down the line, even if the results are hit or miss right now.
The go-to example is Landry Shamet, who’s taken over the starting job since Book started missing games. It’s only been a five-game stretch, but the production has been up and down: Shamet is shooting an impressive 42.9 percent from 3-point range on 4.2 attempts per game, but he’s only making 34 percent of his 10 shots per game overall.
That means that even though he’s shooting a blistering percentage from downtown, he’s missing more than 70 percent of his 2-point looks. That’s not going to get the job done, even bearing in mind that Shamet can’t be expected to singlehandedly replace Booker’s production.
Another common Suns scapegoat lately has been Ish Wainright, a guy brought in on a two-way contract who’s been thrust into action by injuries to Book and Nader. In his 48 minutes spread out over eight games this season, Wainright has tallied a grand total of 10 points and 11 rebounds on 4-of-18 shooting.
Before the Clippers game, he was at 2 points and 5 rebounds on 1-of-11 shooting. And yet, Monty and the Suns were optimistic about Wainright making the most of his opportunity, despite being thrown to the lions.
“I thought Ish gave us a big lift,” Williams said. “He missed some shots, but I thought his screen-setting and his ability to get guys open away from the ball really helped us.”
Wainright finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds on 3-of-7 shooting, including 2-for-5 from deep. The best play of his NBA career came on a wicked put-back dunk that stood out even in a double-digit loss.
“That was nasty,” Chris Paul said. “That dunk he did was impressive, and there’s nothing like in-game experience. You can watch all the games you want to from from the bench, but to get out there in this environment and get a chance to play, I think it’ll pay dividends for our team in the long run.”
And those are the magic words from Monty’s perspective too. The Suns’ “we score” mentality, their key players being injured or sick, Williams’ insistence on giving opportunities to guys like Nader, Wainright, Shamet and Elfrid Payton — all of it can be frustrating if taken at face value. It’s also part of what empowers this 21-5 team in a way few other head coaches around the league can master.
Even when it’s not born of necessity, those minutes that may seem cringeworthy to the casual observer at home are what keep these third-string guys engaged and prepared. Last year’s Finals showed how quickly one injury can change an entire season, and the last few weeks of this current campaign have reinforced that concept. The Suns have the depth to weather this kind of regular-season storm, but in the postseason, when they might need someone “untrustworthy” to step up in a pinch, the faith Williams is affording every single player on his roster could make a difference.
It even extends as far up the pecking order as a guy like Mikal Bridges. In the Clippers loss, he finished with 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, but in a game without Book or DA, it was the kind of night they needed him to take a lot more than just 10 shots.
In the third quarter, Bridges came out aggressive, and it was no coincidence why he took four shots and got to the line five times in that period.
“In the timeout, I told him, everybody told him, ‘Go be aggressive, and if you have a big on you, go make a play. We’ll live with it,'” Williams said. “When you’re undermanned the way we are and you’re missing shots, you need somebody to generate some offense, and he’s capable.”
Bridges said it played out almost like it was scripted from there.
“Obviously, of course it turns just like a movie, where somebody tells you, ‘Do it,'” Bridges explained. “The coach tells you to be aggressive, and the next couple plays you score. Then I look at him, he calls me over and was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.'”
Bridges missed a few of his looks, and it certainly wasn’t the type of performance that Book or CP3 are capable of, when they carry an offense on the nights it’s not flowing. But Williams is hopeful that sort of lesson can carry over.
“He’s worked on it, and there’s opportunities for him when everybody’s back to be that aggressive,” Williams said. “I don’t want him to be aggressive now or in games like tonight, and then when we start to get guys back, he defers. He’s good enough to score off the bounce, in transition, whatever the case may be. I think he’s more than capable of being productive in those environments.”
Paul said it wasn’t just their head coach who was getting on Bridges during that timeout about being more aggressive.
“We all do that,” he said. “That’s the thing about our team. Everybody works. Everybody puts the work in, so you’re never gonna get mad at a guy for taking a shot. That’s the culture, that’s the DNA of our team, and we gon’ keep building.”
Watching Shamet go 3-for-8, 2-for-9, 4-for-11 and 3-for-11 over his last four games isn’t very fun. Neither is Wainright struggling to make a shot in limited minutes, JaVale McGee launching 3s, Jalen Smith barely cracking the rotation when Phoenix desperately needs frontcourt help, or Elfrid Payton minutes in general.
But Monty Williams is playing the long game, and with so many key players on the mend, it’s either embrace those struggles or succumb to them. And even with an established guy like Bridges, that encouragement from his head coach while experimenting with new and expanded roles is exactly what could pay dividends later on when the Suns are whole again and still need it most.
“It gives me all the confidence in the world, even if you mess up, he’s rocking with you,” Bridges said. “Every interview, they ever ask me about Monty, I appreciate him more than a lot of people in this world, man. He’s helped me get to the spot I’m at right now, and shoot, he makes me a good basketball player, but even a better person being around him.”
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